Does Your Homeowners Insurance Cover Murder?

The parents of the perpetrators of the Columbine school shooting will pay the families of some of the victims $1.6 million in recently settled lawsuits. The money is to come from the parents’ homeowners insurance. How is it that a homeowners policy covers murder?

Besides giving you money to rebuild your house if it’s struck by lightning or replace your jewelry if it’s stolen by thieves, a homeowners policy has a liability clause that insures the homeowner against harm caused to others by the homeowner or family members living at the house. But this liability generally covers accidental harm, and both of the killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, committed premeditated murder. The reason the liability clause covered this settlement is that the lawyers for the victims sued the killers’ parents for being negligent in the supervision of their children. Insurance company payments on behalf of the people who supplied the guns used in the killings bring the total of the settlement to about $2.5 million. These settlements do not affect the additional suits pending against local law enforcement, county school authorities, gun shows, and gun suppliers.

Although homeowners policies are not required by law, they are required by lenders in order to secure a mortgage, so 96 percent of homeowners have the insurance. (Only 29 percent of renters have insurance that gives similar protection.) The average cost of homeowners insurance nationwide is about $455 a year, and most homeowners have about $100,000 to $300,000 in personal liability protection. People with a lot of assets often get a personal umbrella liability policy, which can add $1 million or more in coverage and provides protection for a larger range of claims such as libel, slander, or mental anguish. Bill Clinton had such a homeowners umbrella policy and used it to help pay his lawyers’ fees and settlement costs in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case.

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Explainer thanks Daniel Markstein of the Insurance Information Institute; Jim Smith of the College of Insurance; Walter Gerash of the law firm Gerash, Prugh & Gerash; and reader Frederick Bartlett for suggesting the question.